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Do the Conventions Really Matter?

Aired July 27, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, the Republican National Convention is just days away, but since we already know who the nominees are, do the conventions really matter? And is anyone going to watch?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, former ABC News political director Hal Bruno, senior political analyst for, and in Philadelphia, Ed Gillespie, Republican Convention programming director and a Bush adviser.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The conventions kick off the general election and the countdown is on. Delegates begin assembling at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia tonight to settle in before official proceedings begin on Monday. Convention planners and workers have been toiling overtime to put the finishing touches on months of preparations for the big show. Likewise for Democratic officials in anticipation of their Los Angeles convention, beginning August 14.

But for all the political work, television network honchos are unimpressed, reducing television coverage to an all-time low of 12 and a half hours total.

So tonight, the convention signals the beginning of the serious season, but do voters take them seriously? Should they? Are modern conventions all bad?


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Ed Gillespie, good evening. We'll be joining you in Philadelphia tomorrow.

ED GILLESPIE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Look forward to seeing you, Bill.

PRESS: Hope you're ready for the invasion.

Now, Ed, first of all, I want to make a couple points before I ask you my first question, just so everyone understands and so you understand. The first point is that any critical questions I ask of you tonight are also true of the Democratic convention, Republican and Democratic. GILLESPIE: Equal-opportunity abuser.

PRESS: Thank you.

And secondly, any questions are not any reflection on your personal work, Ed, so try to make this turkey as interesting as possible. I just want you to know that starting out.

GILLESPIE: Thanks, I think, Bill.

PRESS: Now having said that, I remember when a convention really decided stuff. It decided the platform It decided the vice presidential nominee. Ed, we already know all of that already, so why should people watch this convention?

GILLESPIE: Well, remember, Bill, the reason that conventions used to decide the nominee is because thing were done in a back room. They were done in little sets of people behind closed doors. But we've opened up the process and the primaries now decide who each party's nominee is going to be, and that's a good thing.

But their still very important, and we know going into this that Governor Bush is going to be the Republican Party nominee and that Dick Cheney is going to be his running mate. The fact is, there are big differences between where the parties are on major issues. It's just like taxes, and Social Security, education and welfare. And so, this is an opportunity, most Americans are busy doing the things they ought to be doing -- getting their kids to school, going shopping for clothes and food, and doing their jobs -- this is the time that they start to pay attention to the political process at the national level, and try to sift through these differences, and this is an opportunity for us here in Philadelphia, for the Democrats in Los Angeles, to start to lay out where we are on these policies and the differences, and why they matter to the voters in their everyday lives.

PRESS: But it's the way we do that anymore. Both in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, everything is going to be totally scripted. Everything is going to be carefully choreographed. Ed, there's a picture in "The Washington Post" this morning of the spontaneous signs that are ready for the spontaneous demonstrations when the spontaneous spirit strikes the delegates.

I mean, Ed, what could possibly happen that you haven't scripted 100 percent?

GILLESPIE: Well, you know what's interesting about our convention, Bill, actually, is that we don't have a lot of elected officials coming here to Philadelphia. Actually, they're going to come here. But what we're going feature actually is instead of having committee chairmen or many governors -- we're going to have some of those, too, and we're proud of the work their doing, but we want to have real people -- single mothers talking about tax cuts, rather than economists or committee chairman. We want to have rank-an-file union members talking about the impact of the Social Security reform that Governor Bush is proposing to save it and strengthen it over the long haul. And I think that there is going to be some interest here, as real people talk about this, and you say it's scripted, but the fact is, these are people expressing their opinions and talking about how these policies are going to affect their lives. That's interesting stuff, Bill.

PRESS: Ed, but they're going to be reading the teleprompter. They're going to be reading prepared scripts. And isn't what Ted Koppel said four years ago true, that the conventions have really become an infomercial -- they're a four-day infomercial for each political party? No more, no less, right?

GILLESPIE: I think they're informative. And sure, are we trying to make them interesting an entertaining, too? You bet we are. We want people to tune in to see what it is that Governor Bush proposes in terms of his policies, in terms of improving and reforming education, saving and strengthening Social Security, reducing the tax burden and strengthening our nation's defense, Absolutely. Do we want people to listen, and tune in and get eyeballs on CNN and other networks? You bet we do. And we're going to try to make it informative. Guilty as charged, Bill. But the fact is, that's a good thing for our Democracy. It's a good thing for our election, and it's a good thing for the country.

MATALIN: OK, Hal, now let me pick it up there. I watched your former network news tonight, and one of the stop stories was why all of these fires are occurring in the West and what to do about them. That is not news. Not, so -- well, it's already ongoing. What I'm saying is all news is not new. Some an increasing amount of coverage on the network news at night is what's important.

You don't think these could conventions are important to cover in the same way that non-daily news events are being covered regularly on the network news?

HAL BRUNO, FORMER POLITICAL DIRECTOR, ABC NEWS: Well, I thinks the conventions are important, that the convention is the place -- even though the role is changed. The convention is the place where the party and candidate get together and present the message and the image they want the American people to see for the next three months, so it is important. But it doesn't mean you've got cover it gavel to gavel, and it doesn't mean that you've got to put in the kind of time in convention coverage that you did 10 or 20 years ago when news actually happened at conventions. It's been a long time since we've had anything spontaneous an unrehearsed at a convention.

Now I don't fault the parties. If the parties didn't do it this way, we'd all be doing stories about how dumb they were.

MATALIN: That's right. The parties started scripting to your preferences so they...

BRUNO: Not our preferences, to their preferences.

MATALIN: Well, let's look back. There is the first convention you are not going to in 40 years. When if you look over convention coverage in the modern political era since 1956 through 2000, in 1956, there are 169 hours of coverage. Compared to this, it's actually fewer than 25 hours. There's 12 and a half, we counted them up. Twelve and a half hours of coverage? I get it if you don't want to do a gavel to gavel, but that's -- NBC is only covering two and a half hours.

BRUNO: In terms of news -- first of all, I'm a news man. I'm a political reporters secondly. The news is my first thing. Journalism is what I do. Politics is simply what I cover. From a journalistic standpoint, we're giving it -- I say "we," I'm retired from NBC. The networks are giving it exactly what it deserves, and they're going to do a good job of doing it. They're going to do interpretative reporting. They're going to have their correspondents, who are very wise in the ways of covering politics, doing reports. They're going to cover the highlights, the acceptance speech by the president, and by the vice president. And if people want to go beyond that, there's plenty of places they can go if they want more intensive coverage.

MATALIN: OK, but still the overwhelming majority of Americans receive their political information and news in general from the Net.

BRUNO: And the majority turn out the convention. They don't even bother to watch it.

MATALIN: But as we said at the opening here, these conventions do signal the beginning of the election, and what the media is signalling by not covering them is that they're not important. It's like what the media puts on the front page says this is an important story. What the Nets say at the top of news, says this is an important story. And my point in showing you that graphic is that it happens to correspond with -- that decreasing coverage happens to correspond with the diminution of voter turnout. Chicken or an egg -- are voters not turning out because you're not telling them it's not important?

BRUNO: No, we're not saying it's not important. We're are saying the convention is important. All we're saying is that the coverage has to change because the convention has changed. And what good does it do to give it more coverage if nobody is going to be watching it in the first place?

Now, look, no party ever won an election because they had a good convention, but they have lost an election because they've had a bad convention. And the parties, you can't fault them from wanting to prevent anything spontaneous or unrehearsed. The Democrats never want a repeat of what happened to them in 1968 on in 1980, and the Republicans don't a repeat of what happened to them in '92.

PRESS: All right, Ed Gillespie, you can't see this, but I have in my hand the second most important book there this country next to the Bible, and that's the "TV Guide, OK. Here it is, for this weekend. Now I'm going look a Monday night, the opening night of your convention. Here are my options, Ed. On ABC, I can watch "Monday Night Football." On CBS, I can watch "Big Brother." Oh brother. Over on some of these other smaller stations I can watch "Andy Griffith." Ed, you're going to compete with that, with your theme Monday night?

GILLESPIE: We are going to compete with that with our theme Monday night, which is "opportunity with a purpose, leave no child behind."

PRESS: Oh, that's exciting. That'll get me in.

GILLESPIE: And we're going to have folks, real people, we're going to have teachers talking about the reforms that Governor Bush is promoting and accountability standards.

And look, you know, we're not going to tell people whether to watch or not, but I think if the networks were to provide people an opportunity to hear how it is the Republican Party intends to leave no child behind, how the Republican Party and how Governor Bush intend to be strong leaders for this country and to lay out the policy options here and the policy proposals and point out the differences with the Democratic Party, I think that people would watch.

And I'm with Mary. I don't know if I'm the chicken or egg, or which Hal is, but the more they move away from the coverage, and they say, well, we're moving away from it because it's boring, we've tried to make them a little more entertaining, and then they say, well, now, we're going to move away because they're making it an infomercial or entertaining. The fact is they're moving away because of ratings, and there is some corporate responsibility. The networks ought to give people an opportunity to see and hear the parties and where they stand on the issues.

PRESS: Ed, let me suggest that some of your colleagues are a little more in touch with reality than you may be on this issue. I know you're all wrapped up in this convention. But this is what Representative J.C. Watts had to say in "The San Francisco Chronicle," a story Marc Sandalow wrote this morning, and he's opening, I think, Monday night. Right?

So here's his -- here's what he told "The Chronicle." Quote: "If you're in San Francisco and you want to see a 'Seinfeld' rerun or 'Andy Griffith' or J.C. Watts emceeing the opening night of the GOP convention, it's probably not close. Hey, if I wasn't in Philadelphia, I'd probably be watching 'Andy Griffith.'"


BRUNO: Ed, you know, in some ways you're probably better off if we don't give it the intensive coverage. My own experience at the conventions over the year is half the time the hall is only half-full. And of those that are there, half of them are asleep or reading newspapers or standing in the aisles talking to each other. Nobody is paying much attention to what happens.

GILLESPIE: Hal, I'll take the challenge. We'll take the challenge here: If you cover it, I guarantee you right here right now that you will not find our delegates dozing. We've got a great series of speakers.


And -- and so I'll take that bet. If you give us the coverage, I'll make sure the delegates are awake. How's that?


BRUNO: You've got guys going through the aisles with sharp sticks to poke them so they make sure that they don't sleep, right?

PRESS: I hope every CNN cameraman was listening to that bet, Ed, because you're going to lose that one.

We're going take a break here, gentlemen. As Mary just mentioned, Hal Bruno's covered every political convention since 1960. He's going to hang right after the show to take your questions in our CROSSFIRE chat room at And when we come back, we'll ask the most important question of any convention today, which is "How do you crash the parties?"


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Once upon a time, conventions made big decisions: on the platform, on the nominees for president and vice president, but today it's all decided ahead of time, even the placards are painted ahead of time. So what's the purpose? Have party conventions become more party than convention? That's our debate tonight with Ed Gillespie, programming director for next week's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, and with Hal Bruno, former ABC News political director, now analyst with and survivor of many, many, many national conventions -- Mary.

MATALIN: And the parties are what we like about the conventions. Let's not pooh-pooh those.

PRESS: Amen.

MATALIN: Let's read something -- let me read you something, Hal, from my favorite term, "from the great state of Ohio," Robert Bennett had this to say. "... our political conventions are a model for the rest of the world, an impressive four-day microcosm of democracy that should be required viewing from start to finish for every classroom student and every citizen."

As we look around the world at the transfer of power -- sometimes it's bloody -- shouldn't we hold up this beacon of democracy for our children and our students, our young people to see? Isn't that -- shouldn't that serve as inspiration to them?

BRUNO: Of course. The convention is part of a process that starts in Iowa and New Hampshire -- and it's an important part still, even regardless of how it's changed -- and it ends on election day. And it's something that's peculiarly American, and an American convention, it has that touch to it that you wouldn't see anywhere in the world, because we're people who believe that politics can be fun. Politics is not -- doesn't have to be a blood sport in this country like it is in other places.

MATALIN: But if you can't see it, it's a tree falling in the forest. OK, CNN is covering more than anybody else. We'll be out there until 2 o'clock in the morning. Talk about partying.

BRUNO: But if people want to see all of it, they can watch CNN. If people want to see parts of it, they can watch the broadcast networks.

MATALIN: But I'll say this again: The overwhelming majority of people only get -- I mean, not everybody gets cable. About a quarter of the country -- households in the country do not get cable, and the four networks reach more eyeballs than the over 200 cable channels put together. I mean, you've got to go where the ducks are if you want to see it. The nets are where -- the easiest place to get it.

BRUNO: There's also public broadcasting that's going to be covering it. There's radio coverage. Don't forget the role that the Internet plays now. The Internet is a new, new phenomenon in this whole mix, and the Internet's going to have very intensive coverage, certainly we are.

PRESS: Ed Gillespie, now I - I want to be honest, I have a stack of invitations for each convention, L.A. and Philadelphia, and I'm going to get to as many of those parties as I can. But my point is...


Believe me. My point is every one of them has a corporate sponsor or multi-corporate sponsors. Aren't these conventions really feeding frenzies for lobbyists today.

GILLESPIE: No, the fact is...

PRESS: Oh, Ed!

GILLESPIE: ... that our convention is open -- I'm not saying there aren't lobbyists at the conventions, but the fact is that the conventions are a place where delegates come together from all over the country, people who have been actively involved in the political process. The conventions are about these delegates and about the viewers back home, the voters who are watching.

Here in Philadelphia, for example, we've opened up a whole hall on political fest open to the public. That's the first time that's been done. We're trying to expand and open this process up, and make it open to people who are not otherwise engaged in the political process, including lobbyists, including delegates. We want folks to come in off the street to and to experience what's going on here in Philadelphia because it's important.

PRESS: But, Ed, these conventions cost over a $100 million each, and a lot of that is taxpayer dollars. I mean, it's OK for the parties to have a big party, but why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for you guys to have four days of self-glorification?

GILLESPIE: Bill, you're the one who's always telling me that we ought to have the taxpayers foot the bill for elections and...


GILLESPIE: ... public funding of campaigns.

PRESS: But not for conventions.

GILLESPIE: And now you're criticizing me because we take...

PRESS: Not for conventions.

GILLESPIE: Not for conventions.

How else -- this is the time at which the parties come together and confer the nomination. You've got to confer the nomination in order for there to be a nominee. It has to be done someplace. It's being done in Philadelphia for us and Los Angeles for the Democrats.

PRESS: All right. All right. Let me tell you quickly, here's my real -- here's my biggest problem with your convention: that George Bush says it's going to be all positive, that there are going to be no attacks on the Democrats and no attacks on Al Gore.

Ed Gillespie, say it isn't so. What good is a political convention unless you're attacking your opponents?

GILLESPIE: Well, first of all, I believe what the governor said is that we're going to accentuate the positives. There is going to be -- we are going to talk about the differences...

PRESS: Oh, thank you.

GILLESPIE: ... between the parties.

PRESS: Oh, I'm relieved.

GILLESPIE: But look, we are not interested in attacking Albert Gore. That is not the cause here. The fact is, we want to talk about Governor Bush, and his strong leadership style, and the fact that he's willing to reach out across -- build consensus. You're going to see a lot of that here. You're going to hear from some former Democrats. You are going to hear from current Democrats who are going talk about his leadership in Texas that he would bring to Washington.

And you know what? In Los Angeles, they won't be like. I guarantee that Al Gore is more interested in attacking his opponents than attacking our country's problems. But that is what we are going to talk about here: what we are for and what we want to do to improve the quality of life for the voters.

PRESS: Go ahead, Hal.

BRUNO: Ed, let me ask you this question.

GILLESPIE: Sure. BRUNO: What parties really want to do in a convention is: Don't harm myself. Maybe if I'm lucky, I can do myself some good. And what they try and do is scramble back toward the middle of the road. If they're Republicans, they want to move from the right towards the center. If they're Democrats, they want to move to the left -- from the left to the center.

So the idea is to get as close to the middle as your convention will allow to you get. Ed, how are you going to this with this Republican Convention? How are you going to get toward the middle of the road?

GILLESPIE: Well, Hal, the fact is that this is where Governor Bush has been, talking about education reform...

BRUNO: That's where he's been, but not the convention people.

GILLESPIE: ... and talking about tax cuts, and -- the convention people -- I've never seen -- I've got tell you -- and you have to see too -- I've never seen a more unified party than we have coming into Philadelphia. People are thrilled here in Philadelphia and across the country about Governor Bush as our nominee. You don't see that with Al Gore. The fact is, in the last poll I saw, 95 percent of self- identified Republicans say that they're for George W. bush. Only about 80 percent of self-identified Democrats say they're for Al Gore.

Al Gore is going have -- he is going to spend his time in Los Angeles attacking, attacking, attacking, trying to energize those Democrats and going liberal -- going to the liberal side.

BRUNO: Eighty is not bad.

PRESS: I'll take 80 percent.

MATALIN: OK, well, Hal...

GILLESPIE: I'll take 95 percent over 80 percent.

BRUNO: We are on our way.

MATALIN: We are on our way. Save us a martini. He's pretending like he's like doesn't like this (UNINTELLIGIBLE), but we cannot wait. Thank you, Ed, for joining us on this very busy night for you.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.

MATALIN: And Hal Bruno, we will send you postcards from the first convention. You are not going to be asked, but you all better stay tuned for Hal after this on slash whatever that is. We'll give you that after we come back with closing comments -- how you can get to Hal in real-chat time when the show is over. Stay with us.


PRESS: Now you can find out what's coming up in the CROSSFIRE. Sign up for a daily e-mail sent free of charge, telling you what we are planning for that night. Log on to to sign up for your daily CROSSFIRE e-mail.

And don't forget, Hal Bruno is going to stick around to answer all your convention questions right after the show at, Mary.

And tomorrow, we kick off our Republican Convention coverage from Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love, with Bush adviser Haley Barbour and DNC chairman Ed Rendell.

You know, Mary, I'm proud of the fact that CNN is covering these conventions gavel to gavel. I do think politics is important. It's our life. And I think the conventions are important, but they're becoming less and less relevant. And I bet you, in four to eight years, they are going to be maybe two days, not four days -- or maybe gone all together.

MATALIN: You know, there's nothing more relevant and there's no better opportunity for -- particularly in this year -- both of these candidates to flesh out what 70 percent of America has not heard yet. What is a compassionate conservatism? How is does Gore different from Clinton -- very important conventions. Everybody should cover them. But we're covering the most, so...

PRESS: We will be there!

All right, from the left, see you tomorrow night in Philadelphia, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin. We cannot wait to see you until tomorrow in Philadelphia.



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